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A Toxics-Free Future


Effects of Air Pollution on Women’s Reproductive Health

By Ms. Aisha Karanja, CEO / Founder – Back To Basics (BTB), Nairobi, Kenya

Born in Nairobi, Kenya, where my father was a teacher and my mother a farmer, I must confess that the issue of pollution - any type of pollution, never bothered anyone in my community. Of course, we knew the theory that “smoke is harmful to health,” but that was it!

Over the years, our country has experienced ecological collapse everywhere, including in Nairobi, which can largely be attributed to the city’s rapid urbanization and a surge in population growth. The increase in energy consumption has led to a sharp rise in air pollution, which has created a health emergency. 

Air pollution causes an estimated four million deaths annually across the world with an overall attributable mortality rate among women being about 50% higher than that of men.

According to the State of the Global Air 2020 report, ambient air pollution was responsible for around 5,000 premature deaths in Kenya in 2019 alone. It is the fourth most important risk factor in driving death and disability combined. Indeed, the 2017 national economic survey estimated that 19.9 million Kenyans suffer from respiratory ailments that are exacerbated by poor air quality. On the other hand, exposure to high levels of air pollution during pregnancy has been linked to adverse outcomes, such as preterm birth, low birth weight, and developmental issues in offspring. 

Even though I became involved in environmental matters in 2013, the issue around the effects of pollution on human health did not take any centre stage in my work and life until 2018.

My defining moment came when I received an email from the Leeds University, UK, asking whether our organisation could host university research students. For nine weeks, I hosted three students whose main interest was “Effects of pollution and climate change on reproductive health.” This was a great eye opener to the effects of the silent killer especially in the rural setting. The outcomes of this research left me wondering if there was something, anything, that could be done to address the challenge of pollution – and I knew I would one day work on something touching on pollution and its effect on women’s reproductive health, and hopefully open an opportunity for me to work with communities to identify local solutions to the pollution challenge.

Fast forward: To demystify solutions, surrounding climate challenges including pollution, as an organisation we adopted the HEAL (Health, Environment And Livelihoods) programs, an integrated approach to environmental stewardship, livelihoods, and economic empowerment for the women. Under the program we sensitize and create awareness on the intricate connection between health, environment, and livelihoods, this being the anchor of all our projects. We promote and advocate for adequate protection, especially against substances that pose risks to brain development, disrupt hormonal functions, and harm reproductive health, recognising that women are the primary victims.

Cognizant of the fact that exposure to hazardous substances and wastes undermines women, children, and other vulnerable groups at risk of human rights abuses, we emphasise and focus on the following areas: 

  • Capacity building and training
  • Advocacy and Awareness creation
  • Information sharing
  • Partnerships and networking
  • Climate action income generating activities.

Sensitization and awareness creation has led to an increased understanding among women, who can now relate the intricate connection between a healthy environment free of pollution and a healthy people. Through the strengthening of their cognitive abilities, we have developed the passion of the women we work with, ensuring they adopt a strong sense of who they are and their critical role as part of the solutions, generating and implementing solutions towards a toxics-free future for generations to come. 

In our own small way, we are going back to basics and demystifying solutions towards a pollution free planet and making our contribution towards reversing the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) which has already significantly altered the composition of the atmosphere and average world temperature to between 1.1 and 1.2°C. Ours remains an exciting journey of seeing women transform into change agents and taking responsibility of their environment and personal health!

In the fight towards a cleaner, greener future, there are no winners or losers. It is equally important to understand that developing solutions requires collaboration - to ensure efforts have a meaningful, widespread impact. The world’s challenges in climate change are numerous and looming, and we therefore need innovative ideas to meet them. Many big bold ideas are needed to really move solutions forward, strong commitments; inspiring ideas; personal pledges and much more.

We must apply collective determination urgently to protect and restore our environment - the buck stops with me and you.

Aisha Karanja is a seasoned professional with years of experience in environmental and community development. Aisha holds a Master’s degree in Community Development and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political science, economics and sociology both from Agra University, India. She also holds a Post graduate diploma (PGD) in journalism and mass communications.